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Full text of "Confirmation : a sermon : preached in Christ Church, Newbern, N. C., in 1869 / by The Right Rev. Thomas Atkinson."

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Hebrews, ch. 6, v. i, ii. 

''Therefore, leaviog the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on to perfec- 
tion ; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of 
faith towards God, of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and 
resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment." 

We have great reason to be thankful to Almighty 
Grod, that in His good providence He has prepared for 
His people this enumeration by the Apostle whom He 
inspired, of the principles of the doctrine of Christ. 
The nature of the human mind is such that, to acquire a 
knowledge of any extensive and difficult subject, we 
have first to learn its principles, and then to advance to 
secondary truths. 

Those principles are the foundation on which the 
superstructure of special propositions rests. The whole 
of geometry, for example, is built upon a few axioms, 
which are its principles. We learn these, and then 
proceed, step b}^ step, to ulterior and more advanced 
conclusions. We acquire a knowledge of law by mas- 
tering its principles before we apply ourselves to special 
cases and minute questions. Thus, also, it is with med- 
icine, with mechanics, with astronomy, with chemistry, 
and with every other subject of thought with which the 
human mind has to deal. We master principles, and 
then go on to more remote and secondary truths. A 
clear and accurate exposition, then, of the principles of 
any doctrine which we wish to learn, is one of the 
most necessary conditions of the success of him who 


applies himself to its study. And he who furnishes 
such an exposition confers a great benefit on all who 
wish to master the subject wdiich he is undertaking to 
explain. IS^ow, here we have the doctrine of Christ, 
the right understanding of which is of such inexpres- 
sible importance, and on the other hand a statement of 
its principles by a man naturally of singularly acute 
and vigorous intellect, of the richest Christian expe- 
rience, and above all, with the special illumination of 
the Holy Spirit resting upon him. How clear and sol- 
emn, then, is the duty, and how great to us the profit, 
of carefully considering those principles, heartily accept- 
ing them and steadfastly maintaining them. Surely that 
man is without excuse who, believing the doctrine of 
Christ to be divine truth, does not seek thoroughly to 
understand its principles, or permits passion or prejudice 
to hinder his accepttince of them. First, then, what are 
we to understand by principles ? They are, as St. Paul 
here intimates, the great and fundamental ideas on 
which any system is based, and which pervade and reg- 
ulate it. They are marked, then, by three character- 
istics — universality, perpetuity, and what I may call 
inchoativeness : that is, they aflPect the whole system to 
which they belong, they endure as long as it endures, 
and they lead on to ulterior, secondary ideas or acts. 
If a system, then, loses its principles, it loses its life. 
Alchemy and astrology have ceased to be sciences, be- 
cause their principles are exploded. When the Roman 
republic became the empire, it was not because its 
organization was changed, nor its ancient offices abol- 
ished. The Senate still sat and deliberated, consuls 
were elected, pro-consuls were sent into the provinces, 
but it was a new government, because its principles had 
been changed. Formerly the people or the aristocracy 
ruled ; now, an autocrat. Just the opposite process 


has taken place in the British government. There are, 
and ever have been, with sliort intervals since the time 
of Kino; John, king, lords and commons, but in the time 
of Henry YIII the government was nearly an abso- 
lute monarchy. Under the Greorges it was an aristoc- 
racy ; it is now becoming, year by year, more and more 
a democracy. The old framework remains, but new 
principles control it. 

So vital, so efficacious are principles. What, then, 
are the principles of the doctrine of Christ? St. Paul, 
we observe, here enumerates six, and we may see they 
refer only to what may be called the human aspect of 
salvation. They do not tell us directly what Grod is or 
what Grod does, but what man does or experiences. 
They do not declare the Trinity, the Incarnation, the 
Atonement, or the work of the Holy Spirit; but they do 
tell us what man, as moved by Grod, has WTought in 
him or on him. These six principles are reducible to 
three classes, two being of each class : the first, of inter- 
nal, spiritual affections ; the second, of external, visible 
ordinances ; the last, of acts or retributions to be expe- 
rienced after death. Of five of these there can be no 
doubt that they are in the fullest sense principles of 
the doctrine of Christ, lying as its foundation. They 
are universal, perpetual, inchoative. Repentance, for 
example, is a spiritual condition belonging to all Chris- 
tian men, as such. All have in a greater or less degree 
sinned, and all are bound to repent. There never will 
come a time on earth when Christian men shall not be 
bound to repent of their sins. And so with faith. All 
Christians are bound to believe, and ever will be bound 
to believe. An impenitent or unbelieving Christian is 
a self-contradiction and an impossibility. He may have 
a name to live, but as a Christian he is dead. And so 
repentance and faith lead on to other Christian graces 


and do not follow from them. They generate hope, love, 
joy, patience, gentleness, goodness, meekness, temper- 
ance — they do not flow from these. So it is with baptism. 
As one of the outward, visible Christian ordinances, it is- 
binding on all men; it ever will be binding, and it pre- 
cedes the rest. So of eternal retributions. Resurrec-' 
tion from the dead and eternal judgment appertain to 
all Christians, they ever will do so, and they precede 
all other retributions. So far, all who bear the name 
of Christ may be said to be agreed in their belief, cer- 
tainly with very slight exceptions. But there is one of 
these principles as to which, unhappily, there is no such 
universal agreement — at any rate among the people 
in the midst of whom we live. That principle is what 
the Apostle calls the laying on of hands. Being a 
principle of the doctrine of Christ, it must be of great 
weight and importance. We .cannot be safe, we cannot 
be innocent, unless we give diligence to find out what 
it really is, and we must suffer a great loss if we do 
not receive the benefit which it is instituted to convey. 
There are three views of its nature which have been 
taken, and only three, which have the least degree of 
plausibility. The first is, that it refers to an act per- 
formed by the Apostles for the purpose of bestowing 
miraculous gifts. But even should we acknowledge 
that to be true which is not true, that there was such an 
act or ordinance performed by the Apostles for this 
purpose, still it could not be considered a principle of 
the doctrine of Christ. It lacks every mark of a princi- 
ple ; it never was universal ; no one is silly enough to 
suppose that at any time all Christians wrought mira- 
cles, and even if that should be imagined, no one but a 
madman would suppose that the power has been per- 
petuated in the Church, so that all now can work mira- 
cles, ^^or would such an ordinance, if it existed, lead 


on necessarily to others. This notion, then, may be 
summarily dismissed. There is another, much more 
worthy of consideration, but which can be clearly shown 
to be erroneous. It is, that the laying on of hands here 
spoken of refers to that which takes place in ordination 
to the ministry. This has one clearly marked charac- 
teristic of a principle, that is, perpetuity. As long as 
the world lasts there must be ordination to the minis- 
try, and in that there must be a laying on of hands. 
But in ordination there is lacking: another essential 
mark of a principle of the doctrine of Christ, that is, 
universality. All Christian men and women are not to 
be ordained, although they are to repent, to believe, to 
be baptized, to rise from the dead, and to stand before 
God in judgment. It is not credible, it is scarcely con- 
ceivable, that the Apostle would enumerate, among acts 
to be performed by all Christians, men and women, and 
which he therefore calls principles of the doctrine of 
Christ, an act to be performed, an ordinance to be 
received, by only one small class of Christian men. To 
suppose aii inspired Apostle to use language so inappro- 
priate and so well calculated to mislead, is scarcely con- 
sistent with respect for him as a man of intelligence, and 
still more with reverence toward that Blessed Spirit by 
whom he was enlightened and guided. This interpre- 
tation, then, must also be rejected. There remains, then, 
only the third, which appears to me demonstrably the 
true meaning of the Apostle's word, that is, that he 
refers here to the ordinance following after baptism, by 
which the Apostles were accustomed to convey to 
Christian people generally the gifts of the Holy Spirit, 
which ordinance has been perpetuated in the Church 
under the name of Confirmation. This has all the marks 
of a principle of the doctrine of Christ. It is univer- 
sal, being offered to all Christian people. If it be 


objected that it is not universal in fact, because not 
received by all, it is a conclusive reply to such objec- 
tion, that it applies equally to such undisputed princi- 
ples as Repentance, and Faith, and Baptism. They too 
are offered to all, but are not accepted by all. Still they 
remain Principles. Again, this laying on of hands in 
Confirmation is perpetual, having subsisted for eighteen 
centuries and being designed for all time. And lastly, 
it is inchoative, being, like Baptism, introductory to 
other Christian ordinances, such as the Eucharist and 

But it may be said, that if Confirmation be of such 
importance as to deserve to be called a principle of 
the doctrine of Christ, there ought to be clear evi- 
dence that it was practiced by the Apostles. And I 
acknowledge the force of this consideration, but main- 
tain that there is such evidence. We have an account, 
in the eighth chapter of the Book of the Acts of the 
Apostles, of Philip the Deacon going down to the City 
of Samaria and so preaching Christ that many believed 
and were baptized. But it seems that, having done this, 
there was nothing more which he was competent to do, 
for there is no intimation that he failed in any part of 
his duty. But yet there was something more to be 
done. And when the Apostles who were at Jerusalem 
heard that Samaria had received the Word of Grod, 
they sent unto them Peter and John, two of their own 
number, who, when they were come down, prayed for 
them that they might receive the Holy G-host. And 
the Apostles laid their hands on these Samaritans and 
they did receive the Holy Ghost. It follows, then, 
that men authorized to preach and baptize, were yet 
not authorized to perform this laying on of hands — 
that it was an especial function of the Apostolic 
office. Again, in the XlXth chapter of the Book of Acts, 


we are told that St. Paul at Ephesus baptized certain 
disciples and laid his hands on them, and the Holy 
Ghost came on them. Now it is to be remembered 
that St. Panl was also an Apostle, and we have no 
account in Scripture that this laying on of hands was 
practiced by any but Apostles, yet being a principle of 
the doctrine of Christ, it was ever to continue, for it 
would be impious to conclude that Christianity, which 
is the same yesterday, to-day and forever, has lost one 
of its principles. 

It follows, then, that the Apostolic office being that 
by virtue of which this laying on of hands is practiced, 
and the laying on of hands being designed to be per- 
petual, the Apostolic office itself must also be perpetual. 
But it is objected that the laying on of hands as practiced 
by the Apostles cannot be the same with Confirmation 
as now practiced, because Mie former was followed by 
miraculous gifts while the latter confessedly is not. 
But certainly miraculous gifts did not always accom- 
pany the laying on of hands by the Apostles, for the 
latter was universal while the former were not. St. 
Paul expressly asks, with regard to Christian people, 
"Are all workers of miracles ?" showing that all were 
not. Miracles appear, too, to have accompanied bap- 
tism, as in the case of the ministrations of Philip at 
Samaria. Yet no one would maintain, because they 
do not now accompany it, that therefore baptism ought 
to cease. Miracles also accompanied preaching, as in 
the case of St. Peter at Caesarea, and do not now 
accompany it. Ought preaching then to cease ? But 
in fact this whole difficulty rests upon an erroneous idea 
of miracles. Miracles are signs, that is^ in the nature of 
evidence. They are supernatural facts, attesting a 
supernatural revelation. When Grod has a new 
message to send mankind, he authenticates it by 


miracles ; but when the message has thus been 
proved to be divine, the miracles cease. For indeed, 
from the very nature of the case, miracles cannot be 
perpetual ; for a miracle is a suspension of a law of 
nature, but if these suspensions be perpetually occur- 
ring, it is equivalent to introducing a new law, and 
then they would cease to be miracles. A miracle does 
not differ from an ordinary fact in nature by being in 
itself more stupendous, or requiring more power to 
perform it, but because it is out of, and contrary to, 
the ordinary sequence of events. Suppose — what is quite 
conceivable — that light were diffused over the earth by 
some means other than the shining of the sun, and that 
a prophet were to appear among men and bring them 
some awful message from their Maker, and in order to 
assure them that it was indeed truth from Grod which he 
was announcing, should predict that at a certain hour 
a new luminary would be seen in the East, and that, all 
eyes being turned in that direction, they should behold 
bright gleams of light kindling in the horizon, and at 
length see the glorious king of day coming forth as a 
bridegroom out of his chamber and rejoicing as a strong 
man to run a race ! How stupendous would this mira- 
cle be ! But to us it is no miracle, because it occurs 
every day by appointed laws and in the ordinary course 
of nature. If miracles, then, had continually occurred 
from the time of the Apostles to the present, whenever 
divine ordinanceswere performed, we should simply have 
had new sequences of events — that is, new laws of nature. 
For a law of nature is nothing else but a uniform 
sequence of facts in nature. It follows, then, that Chris- 
tian ordinances could not be perpetual if always ac- 
companied by miracles, for miracles cannot be perpetual. 
It may be said, however, that in the case of the laying 
on of hands by the Apostles, if extraordinary gifts were 


not always conferred, sanctifying grace always was, 
which cannot be affirmed of Confirmation. But I main- 
tain it cannot be truly affirmed of what was done by 
the Apostles. For the hands of St. Peter and St. John, 
the chiefest of them, were laid on Simon Magus, who 
yet remained in the gall of bitterness and in the bond 
of iniquity. And St. Paul evidently indicates in his 
Epistles that some of the members of the Church, even 
in his day, were stained with very hateful vices, yet he 
laid his hands on them, certainly on one occasion, and, we 
have reason to believe, in every instance when disciples 
were received into the Church by him. That some of the 
persons, then, on whom Confirmation had been admin- 
istered, should not bring forth the fruits of the Spirit, 
does not prove any difference between it and the laying 
on of hands by the Apostles. And if it be maintained 
that generally the graces of the Holy Spirit were con- 
veyed by the laying on of the Apostles' hands, we 
acknowledge it, and declare at the same time that we be- 
lieve these graces are generally conveyed likewise in 
Confirmation to all indeed wiio receive that ordinance 
rightly, to wit : in the spirit of Repentance and Faith. 

It may be demanded of us, however, that if we 
maintain the perpetual obligation of Confirmation, we 
should be prepared to show its continued observance, 
especially in the first and purest ages of the Church. 
And this I feel to be a reasonable requirement. 
Consider, then, the testimony on this subject of the 
early and of the succeeding ages of Christianity up 
to the present time. Tertullian, the greater part 
of whose life belongs to the second century, although 
he died in the third, says that "hands were laid 
upon the baptized persons by benediction calling for 
and invoking the Holy Ghost." And elsewhere he 
says that "the flesh is overshadowed by the impo- 



sition of hands, that it may be enlightened by the 
Spirit.'' St. Cyprian, who was put to death in the 
year 258, referring to the memorable events in the city 
of Samaria, of which I have already spoken, says that 
" they who believed in Samaria were baptized ; prayer 
was said over them, and hands laid upon them that the 
Holy Grhost might be invoked and poured upon them, 
which,'' he adds^ ''is still the custom with us, that they 
who are baptized into the Church should be solemnly 
dedicated by the Bishops of the Church, and may 
receive the Holy Ghost by imposition of hands." And 
surely St. Cyprian, if any man, is a competent and 
credible witness. He thoroughly knew the usage of 
Bishops, being himself a Bishop, and his testimony can 
be entirely depended on, he having died a martyr for 
the Truth. Hear, then, what another man says who 
was not a Bishop, and anything but a champion and 
advocate of men in that office. Hear St. Jerome. He 
describes facts in his day just as we witness them in our 
own. He says : As for them that are baptized afar 
off in the lesser towns, by Presbyters and Deacons, the 
Bishop travels out to them to lay hands upon them and 
to invoke the Holy Grhost." Now, in the language of 
one of our own Bishops, those who lived near to the 
Apostles' time (and we must remember that Tertullian 
was born within forty years after the death of St. John) 
doubtless knew their sense of the matter, and they did 
not suffer the rite to be laid aside. They assert that it 
descended to the Church from the Apostles, and we find 
it in fact continued universally in the Church until the 
time of the Reformation. Even the great Continental 
Reformers approved of it. Martin Luther, who cannot 
be suspected of timidity or of excessive conservatism, 
who laid his daring hands upon the most venerable 
institutions, when they seemed to him to contradict the 


teaching of the Scriptures, — he honored Confirmation, 
and maintained it in the Church which he founded. 
And it is now the usage of the Lutherans. Calvin de- 
clares that he approved of it, and while he thought, as 
was true enough, that it had been corrupted in the 
course of time, he considered, as it seems tome wisely, 
that that should be done which the Church of England 
really did, and which our Church continues to do — that 
is, retain the pure institution and reject the supersti- 
tion. We know, also, that the founders of Methodism re- 
ceived Confirmation— the Wesleys, Fletcher of Madely, 
and Whitefield. Adam Clarke tells us himself that he, 
while a student, sought and obtained Confirmation, and 
forty years afterward he had seen no reason to regret 
it. But it is unnecessary to multiply testimonies. If 
the consent of Christendom proves anything, it proves 
the rightfulness and benefits of Confirmation. It is a 
matter on which all were agreed until the sixteenth 
century, and on which there is even now more unanimity 
than on almost any other disputed question as to Chris- 
tian doctrine. He, then, who rejects Confirmation takes 
the rash and perilous step of rejecting what St. Paul 
declares to be a principle of the doctrine of Christ — of 
rejecting what was for many ages an universal badge of 
Christian men, what is in the present day accepted by 
far the greater part of those who profess and call them- 
selves Christians, and what has been sanctioned and 
commended by the judgment and recorded testimony 
of the wisest, most learned, and most devout of Christian 
teachers. May none of us walk in a path against which 
we have been thus solemnly warned.